Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 1.6: The Ruins of Walsingham Abbey

Plate: Engraved by Gerard Vandergucht (1696/7-1776) after J. Badslade in 1720. The minutes of the Society of Antiquaries of London record that on 17 May of that year “Mr President [Peter Le Neve] brought a pretty drawing of the ruins of Walsingham Abby” (SAL Minutes I.34). An engraving of this drawing “for the use of the Society” was ordered by ballot on 6 July, and proofs of the engraving were delivered on 24 August (I.35). Badslade’s name is mentioned later in connection with this engraving (I.39), but Vandergucht’s name only appears on the print itself. This omission is worth noting because George Vertue (1684-1756) had made the first five engravings in Vetusta Monumenta and would go on to make the next eighty-two. In this case, however, the work was done quite rapidly by Vandergucht, and proofs were exhibited at the meeting of 24 August by John Warburton.

Object: A view of the ruins of Walsingham Abbey, including some parts no longer standing. The east front of the abbey church with its large window opening remains the most prominent feature of the site today in Walsingham, North Norfolk. The Augustinian monastic house (technically not an abbey but a Priory of Canons Regular) was established in 1153 to accompany the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, a national pilgrimage site since the eleventh century. The priory church was built between 1153 and 1280 and then extensively remodeled in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries (Green and Whittingham 1961). In the mid-fifteenth century a stone chapel was built to contain the original wooden shrine or Holy House from the late eleventh century. The shrine and priory were suppressed and destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538.


Cœnobii Walsinghamensis Quod Reliquum est. A.D. MDCCXX. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ.


What Remains of Walsingham Abbey. 1720. / Published by the Society of Antiquaries.

Commentary by Noah Heringman: This topographical print of Walsingham Priory is the earliest example of a more popular approach in Vetusta Monumenta, reflecting a taste for landscapes with ruins. In 1726, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck began publishing their series of antiquarian prints in the same style, which became very popular and eventually encompassed every county in England and Wales. This engraving of Walsingham found its way into an Album of 208 Prints, Views, Etc. formed by Sir Nathaniel Curzon some three decades later, suggesting that it appealed to collectors as a single print. The more highly finished views of Fountains Abbey (Plates 1.9-1.12) and other such prints in Vetusta Monumenta tend to diverge from this first example by showing more architectural detail. This plate, however, is more typical for the period; by including spectators, it alludes to the kind of tourism promoted, along with more learned pursuits, by antiquaries such as William Stukeley (1687-1765), whose Itinerarium Curiosum first appeared in 1724 (see also Plate 1.7).

The emphasis on landscape over detail here may also result from the choice of artists. Neither the draftsman, J. Badslade, nor the engraver, Gerard Vandergucht appear elsewhere in Vetusta Monumenta. George Vertue, who engraved the vast majority of the plates to 1756, admired Vandergucht and was himself trained by the latter’s father, Michael Vandergucht (Clayton 2004). Vandergucht also achieved prominence as an antiquarian engraver working for Stukeley and others, but the difference between his style and Vertue’s may be appreciated by glancing at Plates 1.13-1.14, a set of further Norfolk antiquities engraved by Vertue three years later. Little is known of Badslade, a topographical artist, whose detailed drawing of Howland Great Dock, Deptford, was engraved commercially about the same time. Vandergucht’s proof was delivered to the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) by John Warburton on 24 August 1720, and Vandergucht was ordered to add the credit line Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ (“published by the Society of Antiquaries”), which appeared consistently on all the plates from this point forward. A full set had evidently been printed by 1 February 1721, when “it was ordered that Three Prints of Walsingham Abby be presented in the Name of the Society to Mr Badslade for his drawing of the Same, which he favor'd us withall” (SAL Minutes I.39).

Peter Le Neve (1661-1729), President of the SAL from 1717 to 1724 and an officer in the College of Heralds, played a leading role in the creation of this print. The process began when “Mr President brought a pretty drawing of the ruins of Walsingham Abby” to exhibit at a meeting of the SAL on 17 May 1720 (SAL Minutes I.34). The evaluative word “pretty” is notable in the context of these otherwise terse early minutes, and it is notable also that Le Neve’s promotion of Badslade’s drawing provides an example of two of his initiatives at the SAL. He promoted the antiquities of Norfolk, where his family owned land, and championed artists including Edmund Prideaux, who was elected a fellow of the SAL in April 1720. Prideaux’s drawing of St. Benet’s Abbey gatehouse in Norfolk was also exhibited by Le Neve and was subsequently engraved on Plates 1.13-14.  Le Neve exhibited many objects and drawings relating to Norfolk throughout this period, as recorded in the minutes.   

The landscape orientation of this print lends emphasis to the one strongly vertical feature of the ruin, the east front of the priory church. The rather squat animal and human figures also indicate vertical scale. Samuel and Nathanael Buck’s view of the same scene published seventeen years later in A Collection of Engravings of Castles, and Abbeys in England shows that substantial alterations took place soon after or perhaps had already begun by the time Badslade made his drawing. The other portions of the fabric appearing behind the east front as well as the exterior wall in the foreground are all absent from the Bucks’ print, first published in 1738, while the modern farm buildings remain together with the fragments of medieval building appearing on the extreme left of this image. However, a large neoclassical mansion now appears to the left of these fragments, identified as belonging to “Lee Warner Esq.” in the Bucks’ caption (which also traces Warner’s relation to previous owners of the abbey site since the Dissolution of the Monasteries).

Warner built the still-extant Abbey House in the 1720s, and his descendant J. Lee Warner carried out the first major excavation of the site in 1853. Charles Green and A.B. Whittingham note that the shrubbery planted by Warner around the east front of the priory church complicated matters for his descendant, for he was ordered in 1853 to avoid the roots of these old shrubs in his excavation. In his 1961 excavation, Green found that the creators of this eighteenth-century landscape garden—analogous to that constructed around the ruins of Fountains Abbey (Plates 1.9-1.12), though smaller in scale—had also caused extensive damage to the site. To judge from the Bucks’ print, Warner built a circular enclosure and possibly a hedge maze around the east front to emphasize it further, presumably after demolishing the other parts depicted in the Vetusta Monumenta plate. This iconic façade, with its high pointed arch and smaller round window at the top, is the most substantial piece of the fabric remaining and accordingly emphasized in promotional material by the site’s current owners. The Bucks’ perspective is different, looking somewhat more to the north, so that the extant west gate (fourteenth century) appears through the large window opening. The round window above the arch appears with tracery, as it does today; the cross-hatching in that same window in our example, perhaps intended to show depth, is an odd feature of Vandergucht’s print. The birds here are also notable, as they do not appear in the Bucks’ print or on any comparable print in Vetusta Monumenta. The collapsed perspective makes it hard to tell if they are rooks scattering from their perch on the fabric, a flock of starlings at some distance, or something else, but they do seem naturalistic and not merely decorative.

Green and Whittingham’s report on their work provides not only a comprehensive survey of the remains but also a review of the visual record, including this print, and of the earlier literature, especially that prompted by the first excavation in the 1850s. Green had a particular interest in the chapel built to house the eleventh-century wooden shrine, recorded by William of Worcester in 1479 as a novum opus (new construction) (Green and Whittingham 1968, 258). Green began by locating this “new” chapel to the north of the priory church and was able to confirm the dimensions recorded in 1479 by excavating the foundations. In doing this work he also uncovered an “intact” portion of the colorful tiled floor along the north wall of the church (259). Green and Whittingham also surveyed the above-ground remains, which included fragments of domestic priory buildings to the south of the church (shown in a more complete state on the left side of the print) and fragments of both the east and west ends of the church. They describe many fragments surviving today that are not visible in the print, including portions of the precinct wall, the fourteenth-century west gate into the village, and numerous fragments—including the Prior’s Hall in its entirety—incorporated into Abbey House by Lee Warner.

Green and Whittingham refer to the Vetusta Monumenta print twice to illustrate the original context of features enclosed by the modern house and compare it with later prints, including the Bucks’, in a masterful reconstruction of the priory’s ground plan from the full array of historical, visual, and archaeological evidence. The surviving second-story refectory window, the upper half of which is clearly visible in the left background here (as noted by Green and Whittingham), is actually about 260 feet due southwest of the great east window, indicating that the perspective in Badslade’s drawing (and/or the print) is distorted and compressed. Green and Whittingham do not comment on the substantial fragment of wall appearing behind the great east window, evidently intended to depict a portion of the north wall of the church no longer extant in the 1730s—even though this seems (from our print) to be the most obvious casualty of Lee Warner’s shrubbery.   

The antiquarian interest of this site, proverbially known as “England’s Nazareth,” is readily apparent today from the presence of active Catholic, Anglican, and even Orthodox shrines of Our Lady of Walsingham along with the ruins and other heritage sites in the village (originally Little or New Walsingham, now conjoined with Great or Old Walsingham). Antiquaries in 1720 would have had access to much of the rich antiquarian material that is still used to tell the story today: the priory’s thirteenth-century seal, showing the church and the shrine’s legendary statue of the Virgin and child on its two sides; a fifteenth-century ballad narrating the vision of Richeldis de Faverches in 1061, in which the Virgin revealed the scene of the Annunciation and directed her to build a replica of the house in Nazareth (the original wooden shrine); pilgrimage narratives by Erasmus, who visited the site in 1511, and many others—even Henry VIII made the pilgrimage, twenty-eight years before his own officers suppressed the priory and took the famous statue to London to be destroyed (Page 1906, 400); and historical narratives by John Leland (c. 1503-1552) and William Camden (1551-1623), among others. Erasmus, as quoted in Richard Gough’s 1789 English translation of Camden’s Britannia, meditates fervently on the senses in which the Virgin may be said to “reside” in the chapel, which was attached to the north side of the priory church (Camden 1789, 2.97). Gough, in his extensive commentary on the text, notes that “the Galaxy was pretended to point to this place, and thence called Walsingham Way” [by analogy to the Milky Way]; he also provides a useful list of all the building components that survived in 1789 (2.112-13).

English anti-Catholic sentiment ran even higher in 1720 than in 1789 and the prints-only format of Vetusta Monumenta (through 1744) allowed the editors to avoid committing themselves to any potentially controversial narrative. Gough’s epithet for Walsingham in 1789, “the English Loretto” (alluding to a Marian pilgrimage site in Italy), is still relatively discreet but captures something of the competitive spirit that may be said to inform English antiquarianism from its formal revival in 1718, or even from Elizabethan times: even visually unspectacular medieval remains such as Walsingham Priory were national antiquities that spoke of a monumental past to rival that of the Mediterranean world.

Works Cited:

Buck, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck. 1726-39. A Collection of Engravings of Castles, and Abbeys in England. 2 vols. London.

Camden, William. 1789. Britannia: or, a chorographical description of the flourishing kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the islands adjacent; from the earliest antiquity. Edited and expanded by Richard Gough. 3 vols. London: John Nichols.

Clayton, Timothy. 2004. “Vandergucht, Gerard (1696/7–1776).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Curzon, Sir Nathaniel, comp. 1720. Album of 208 Prints, Views, Etc. National Trust 3141957. Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, UK.

Green, Charles, and A. B. Whittingham. 1968. “Excavations at Walsingham Priory, Norfolk, 1961.” Archaeological Journal CXXV: 255-90.

Page, William, ed. 1906. “Houses of Austin Canons: The Priory of Walsingham.” In A History of the County of Norfolk, Volume 2. London: Victoria County History. British History Online.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

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